Friday, February 21, 2014

Christiegate: The road to Subpoena Boulevard

THE LEGAL traffic jam building around the office of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in Trenton, N.J., is as big as the ones convened on the access lanes to the George Washington Bridge for four days last September. With new summonses, new statements and new disclosures from the press in the case of the busiest bridge in the world being used for political purposes, all roads to and from Christie’s office are being diverted to the newly-widened access lanes of Subpoena Boulevard.

It’s gettin’ so you can’t even keep up. In the last week, The Star-Ledger, The Bergen Record, The Wall Street Journal and MSNBC have reported on the latest chapters of the Christie saga: 18 fresh subpoenas were issued to several figures in the GWB scandal by the New Jersey legislature. A legislative committee passed motions to compel former Christie aides Bridget Kelly and Bill Stepien to respond to earlier subpoenas.

Philip Kwon, the Port Authority deputy general counsel, is under close scrutiny for his possible role in this mess. And, thanks to Steve Kornacki of MSNBC, a new report documents, through emails and texts, the fact that David Wildstein, a now-former top Christie aide at the Port Authority, and a Port Authority police lieutenant named Chip Michaels, were on the scene when the lanes were shut down in Fort Lee, N.J., presumably maneuvering their way around the traffic nightmare they helped to engineer.

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Last weekend, Kornacki reported how, in a 7:28 a.m. email on Sept. 9, the first day of the GWB traffic farrago, Wildstein told bridge manager Robert Durando that he was “going to take a ride with chip and see how it looks.”

For those of you trying to keep score at home, all this elevates the appearance, if not the likelihood, of a conspiracy, of a toweringly cynical manipulation of a public resource, planned and orchestrated and monitored by functionaries of the state, for political purposes.

But as Christiegate grows, what’s clear, clearer now than before, is just how far Chris Christie will go to maintain his grip not just on power as New Jersey’s governor, but also on the perception of power beyond his current office, including his unlikely bid for the 2016 Republican nomination. His mindset, or at least his public persona, seems to be some weird cross of detachment and engagement, of an internal conviction that he will rise above the waters that are rising around him. He is lately a man with a lot to do.

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BESIDES HIS day gig of riding the beast of a $500 billion state economy, Christie has the additional responsibility of being the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, a position that requires trips around the country, in the eternal fundraising quest that the job entails. All this and widening scandals too.

But Christie has adopted a full-steam-ahead strategy, acting like nothing much has happened at all in the last three months, as if subpoenas and state inquiries were just a speed bump on a possible road to the nomination, instead of a sinkhole for those ambitions. This despite cratering opinion poll numbers within his state, and equally dispiriting survey results from around the country.

From all outward appearances, this is a man who knows no reverse gear. In a masterful piece of journalism in The New Republic, Alec MacGillis tells us why.

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MacGillis, a TNR senior editor, writes in detail about the governor’s longer back story, in a breakdown of personal and political history that more fully explains Christie’s upbringing and personality and, among other things, why Christiegate is a better descriptor of the current implosion of the governor’s fortunes than Bridgegate ever was.

MacGillis explains that, to make sense of Chris Christie, you have to make sense of the environment that made him possible. Once you do that, it’s easy to see how in some ways his current iteration wasn’t so much possible as it was inevitable.

“In most of the United States,” MacGillis writes, “the big political machines have been broken, or reduced to wheezing versions of their former selves. In New Jersey, though, they’ve endured like nowhere else. The state has retained its excessively local distribution of power — 566 municipalities, 21 counties, and innumerable commissions and authorities, all of them generous repositories of contracts and jobs.

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THE PLACE still has bona fide bosses—perhaps not as colorful as the old ones, but about as powerful. The bosses drum up campaign cash from people and firms seeking public jobs and contracts, and direct it to candidates, who take care of the bosses and the contributors—a self-perpetuating cycle as reliable as photosynthesis.”

“In early 2013, as Christie’s reelection neared ... Christie was fixated on securing Democratic endorsements to bolster his image as a Republican with crossover appeal. It didn’t matter that he was expected to waltz back into office—people needed to get on the list. The administration’s intergovernmental-affairs staff, who knew which mayor or county official had gotten which grant, was moved almost wholesale to the campaign. Christie himself made repeated calls to mere county-level officers: clerks, sheriffs, registers of deeds.

“For those who got behind the governor, there were incentives. To give but one example: The close-knit Orthodox community in Lakewood had endorsed [Jon] Corzine in 2009. In March [2013], a coalition of the town’s rabbis and businessmen announced it would be backing Christie this time around. Two months later, the state granted $10.6 million in building funds to an Orthodox rabbinical school in Lakewood, one of the largest expenditures for any private college in the state.”

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The scope and scale of various investigations of Christie’s office and authority are now as vast, as panoramic as the scandals themselves. Facing a wave of subpoenas new and old, renewed scrutiny of previous actions by the governor before he became governor, and new disclosures and allegations coming every day, Team Christie is under siege like never before. Never mind the presidency: Chris Christie may have a hard time keeping the job he’s already got.

As this seemingly never-ending Russian doll of scandals keeps revealing new contents, the image of the former GOP frontrunner for 2016 has become hopelessly busted goods. There’s a point when damage control is useless; that’s when damage is all there is to be controlled. Christie has reached that point.

Thanks to the wave of recent revelations, and his own less than convincing responses, in spite of his brief nod at policy gravitas in an RGA speech in Chicago, his image as a contender has vanished. Instead, he’s coming across as emperor of the asylum; architect of a ruthless political culture; steward of a tradition of corruption; the supremo of a cabal of managers, handlers, enablers and mouthpieces whose operational principle has lately blended calculation and ineptitude, a bizarre state-government mashup of Machiavelli and the Keystone Kops.

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AND THAT’S the greater damage already done to any higher aspirations he may have. Whatever the legal outcome of the current situation, whether he’s served with papers or not, Christie is shackled to a perception that won’t be easily overcome. His identity as a national figure is badly compromised; he’s become known for the wrong things.

He’s known for being a bully, for being short with people who don’t agree with him. Carving out a uniform national political identity for yourself is a challenge under the best of circumstances; it’s a problem when you adopt the persona of governing like someone else. Like Al Capone or Tony Soprano, if they’d won elective office. Like “All the King’s Men”’s Willie Stark, once he did attain elective office. Or Richard Nixon before he lost elective office.

Consider the man’s vocabulary. MacGillis observes: “Insults that Christie has publicly hurled at his antagonists — reporters, lawmakers, citizens, little old ladies — include, but are not limited to: ‘stupid,’ ‘jerk,’ ‘idiot,’ ‘hack,’ ‘ignoramuses,’ ‘thugs,’ ‘big shot,’ ‘losers’ and ‘numb-nuts.’”

Hardly the rhetoric of a statesman. Or, dear God, a commander in chief.

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Even the other thing he’s recognized for, the Hurricane Sandy recovery effort — once thought to be the crown-jewel crisis that would fully cement his bona fides as a take-charge leader worthy of national office — isn’t working out, as more and more New Jerseyans personally affected by that storm express displeasure with how Christie has handled the recovery effort.

Up to now, that’s about it. No long-term ideas, no deep policy prescriptions, no detailed insights into how to help an economically-battered nation reverse its deep slide. To the degree that he’s known at all for anything outside New Jersey, it’s mostly for the crisis that he helped create as either a selectively indifferent manager of his own employees, or a prickly, defensive, ruthlessly transactional governor who’ll stop at nothing to achieve his objectives.

Either way, that’s not someone the Republican Party wants or needs in pole position for a run at the White House.

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ALL IN ALL in all, a portrait of Christopher James Christie is emerging, one that marks his political survival instincts as nothing less than Nixonian, one that will probably forever bar him from spending time in the White House beyond that extended to somebody with a visitor’s pass.

“He has been so singularly successful at constructing his own mythology — as a reformer, a crusader, a bipartisan problem-solver — that people have never really seen him clearly,” MacGillis writes.

“He wasn’t out to line his own pockets, or build a business empire. He wasn’t even seeking to advance a partisan agenda. And yet it was transactionalism all the same. Christie used a corrupt system to expand his own power and burnish his own image, and he did it so artfully that he nearly came within striking distance of the White House.

“When he got cozy with Democratic bosses, people only saw a man willing to work across the aisle. When he bullied his opponents, they only saw a truth-teller. It was one of the most effective optical illusions in American politics — until it wasn’t.”

Image credits: George Washington Bridge: David Handschuh/New York Daily News. Christie top: Mel Evans/Associated Press. New Jersey map: N.J. Department of Transportation. The New Repubipc logo: © 2014 The New Republic. Christie bottom: Lucas Jackson/Reuters.

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